There is no mandatory regulation of counsellors and psychotherapists in the UK. Even as I write those words I find the situation difficult to comprehend. I imagine readers from other countries being baffled by the situation – No licensing? No minimum qualifications? No mandatory complaints procedure?
Luckily, the profession has become self-regulatory and a therapist has several options as to which professional body or bodies to join. Arguably, the two best-known in the UK are the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) and UKCP (United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy) while regional options exist for Scotland (COSCA) and Ireland (IACP) and other general and specialised options exist, many of which are accredited by the Professional Standards Association (See the counselling directory for a more comprehensive list: http://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/accreditation.html ). For the purposes of this article, membership refers to either individual or organisational membership.
So why should counsellors join a professional body? Is it enough to acknowledge and abide by their ethical frameworks, or is membership the only ethical way forward?
I’d like to look at this from the perspective of a first-time client. Our imaginary client feels they might benefit from some counselling and so types “counselling” and the name of their local town into Google. Up pops the name of a local therapist in private practice. Her website states she has 10 years’ experience, she specialises in the area of the client’s issues and is affordable. The client looks at the picture of the therapist and thinks it is somebody she might get along with, so she gets in touch and books an initial session. It has not crossed the client’s mind to check whether the therapist is a member of a professional body. The client is not aware that counselling is not a regulated profession, and assumes that the therapist is bound to a code of ethics.
The therapist might rationalise that she is ethical. That she follows the BACP ethical framework but simply does not like the bureaucracy of the professional bodies. She might surmise that she has been working effectively with clients so far in her career and membership to a professional body is simply an unnecessary expense. As far as she is concerned she is working ethically, and as far as the law is concerned, she is doing nothing wrong. She mentions nothing about her lack of membership in her contract.
The alarm going off in my mind as I imagine this scenario is screaming the word AUTONOMY!
The client has not properly been made aware of what service is being offered by the therapist. I would argue that the therapist’s actions amount to deception by omission. It seems vital to the integrity of and public trust in the profession that clients are fully aware of what they can expect from counselling, and this must include what options are available to them should they wish to make a complaint at any stage.
If our imaginary client were to investigate the possibility of making a complaint against her therapist and discover that there were no options available to her, this could feel like a terrible betrayal, potentially damaging not just trust in the therapist, but in the profession as a whole.
I am a strong supporter of mandatory regulation of the profession. I feel there are many benefits – which I will undoubtedly explore in the pages of this blog – and in my view those benefits outweigh any cost. But while we remain in a situation where membership is not mandatory, let us ensure that our clients are offered the security of professional body involvement should they need it, or at the very least be clear in the contract about what the implications of lack of professional body membership are for your practice and your clients’ rights, so that they are able to make an informed choice.